The 52 per cent didn’t vote for new free trade deals but a focus on domestic issuesby Matthew Bevington / July 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
Boris Johnson may have quit in the whirlwind of the past few days, but the “Global Britain” foreign policy agenda remains.
As Donald Trump arrives for his first visit as United States president, his ambassador to the UK—Woody Johnson—has made no secret that Trump “would love to do a bilateral trade deal.” Many Brexit-supporting MPs and the prime minister herself would see such a deal as a boon to their wider Global Britain agenda.
In her Lancaster House speech Theresa May explained that the referendum “was not the moment Britain chose to step back from the world. It was the moment we chose to build a truly Global Britain.” This analysis has formed the basis of the government’s foreign—and trade—policy agenda since then, so it deserves closer inspection. Did we vote to be more global?
The evidence suggests, frankly, no.
Recent polling by Global Future suggests Leave voters tend to have an inward-looking worldview, as the chart below shows. This means being “focused overwhelmingly on our own national challenges,” which chimes, of course, with wanting to spend extra money on the NHS rather than paying into the European Union budget (although most economists would argue this is a false choice) and being hostile to immigration. So these findings shouldn’t surprise us.
Yet, this inward-looking Brexit is far from the narrative that has been presented by cabinet ministers such as Liam Fox and the recently departed Foreign Secretary. In his major speech in February, Boris Johnson said “Brexit is about re-engaging this country with its global identity.” For most Brexit voters, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Yet even as Theresa May has begun to move her Brexit position towards greater compromise, she continues to pursue the holy grail of an independent trade policy to give shape to her Global Britain ambitions.
But the desire to strike free trade agreements seems, in many ways, to directly contradict the interests of Leave voters. Recent academic work suggests greater openness to cheaper manufacturing imports, from China in particular, was part of a longer-term trend contributing to the decline of left behind areas and increased their tendency to vote Leave. Reducing further barriers to cheaper imports through the pursuit of free trade agreements, though perhaps marginally beneficial…